PAKISTAN is one of the most water-stressed countries; agriculture uses nearly 70pc of all water; rapid urbanisation and growth of industries are competing with agriculture in the demand for water.
About 80pc of the crop area is irrigated by canals and wells and only 15pc of the water used for crops is from rains. An estimated 35-40pc of the water for irrigation is wasted from the canal head to the farm and flooding of fields at the farm level adds to this loss.
The supply of irrigation water to farms is unfairly distributed in favour of the large landholders and those with lands at the top-end of the watercourse; rent-seeking and subsidies in various forms contribute to inefficient water use at the farm level; water storage capacity — only 30 days compared with 120 days in India — has not expanded in the last at least 25 years.
Water is not used inefficiently: output per unit of water is only one-third of what California farmers get
The water disputes between provinces and with India are based essentially on deep mistrust; and climate change is making water supply more unreliable with frequent episodes of severe flood and droughts.
These assertions are based on reasonably reliable evidence about the state of water and agriculture in Pakistan. Water is not scarce; it is used inefficiently: output per unit of water is only one-third of what California farmers get.
There are reasons for this, and all of them point to poor policies and bad management of water at all levels. In addition, at the farm level, poor farm practices and crop combinations are reflected in wasted water and low yield levels.
The surface water delivered to farms, through canals, distributaries and watercourses, does not take into account the demand for water: every farm is entitled to a certain quota of water regulated by a warabandi system, taking into account the type of crop and its area.
The water rate (abiana) is set to cover the cost of maintaining the irrigation infrastructure. Until recently the provincial irrigation departments were responsible for the supply of water and collecting the abiana from users.
Given the inefficiencies—at least 30 per cent of the water was lost on the way—and the pervasive rent-seeking by the irrigation officials, a decentralised system of management, involving water users in making decisions from the canal-head to the watercourse level, was introduced gradually in the last decade.
The performance of the area water boards and water users associations have reportedly not been as good as was expected. When measured by the amount of collected water revenue, maintenance of the watercourses and fairness in the distribution of water along watercourses. However, it seems that the experience of the new system in Punjab has been better than in Sindh.
More importantly, this so-called decentralised irrigation system has not put enough pressure on farmers to save water by shifting from flooding the fields to drip irrigation and to crops that demand less water.
Why have the governments not persuaded the provincial irrigation and drainage authorities to move to a water pricing regime that takes into account the demand side as well? That will allow the maintenance of infrastructure at the desired level and encourage farmers to save water. It may even develop a market for water exchange between farmers.
The supply of groundwater by private tube wells has been a boon to farmers in many areas of Punjab but not in Sindh. But it has come at a heavy cost to the society: it has depleted the aquifer, in some areas quite severely; it has cost billions of rupees to meet the demand for subsidised fuel (diesel and electricity); it has contributed to inequalities between farmers and regions.
The economic return to the tube well owner has far exceeded the return to society. We don’t know how much if any impact these tube wells have had in reducing the incidence of waterlogging and salinity—the twin menace has decommissioned over 2m hectares of farm land.
One of the critical problems of water supply is the shortage of storage capacity. The increased silting of the existing storage dams along with no new capacity built in the last two to three decades pose a serious challenge to mitigate the effects of the increasingly unreliable flow of water due to climate change. Public policy on this issue has been a victim of internal divisions due to distrust between the provinces.
The periodic disputes on actual water flows and about the provincial shares in the Indus water system are good indicators. The dispute between India and Pakistan about diversion of water of the Indus distributaries is likewise based on deep-seated distrust. Why have the parties to these disputes not found ways to resolve them? Are they waiting for divine intervention or a catastrophic shock?
Public policy for saving water and getting more out of each unit of water has failed in another important area as well: promoting new water-saving irrigation methods and efficient crop practices at the farm level.
Why can’t the government redirect its subsidy and small loan policy to promote new technologies such as drip irrigation? Similarly, the agriculture research and extension programmes have made little if any progress in persuading farmers to adopt profitable practices of zero-tillage, precision land levelling, and intercropping with genetically modified high-yielding crops that are salt-tolerant and drought-resistant.
A vigorous and efficient public support system should be in place along with the right signals on prices. All of this would also require governments to focus on millions of small landowners and cultivators.
Agriculture is again in the headlines for all the bad reasons. I see the government is promising things that have not worked before.